LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Pitt freshman quarterback Pat Bostick and his teammates weren't quite good enough to beat heavily favored Louisville here yesterday, but Bostick might have done something that will have a more lasting, positive effect on the program. He might have proved to the rest of his team -- specifically his coaches -- that he's capable of making big plays and deserves more responsibility in the offense.
We can only hope.
Bostick didn't want to hear that -- or much else, actually -- after Pitt lost, 24-17. It hurt too much after he and Pitt's other talented freshman force, LeSean McCoy, botched a handoff at the Louisville 1 to deny the Panthers a late tying touchdown. "I didn't get it to him, bottom line," Bostick said, nearly in tears.
But if the ending was something to cry about for Pitt, Bostick's play in the fourth quarter was worth shouting about. The kid grew up as a quarterback, yes, bottom line. It's nice to think Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh noticed.
The Pitt staff clearly has struggled in its handling of Bostick, 18, since he was forced into the starting lineup at Virginia Sept. 29 after starter Bill Stull broke a thumb in the opening game and backup Kevan Smith was ineffective in the next three games. Mostly, Cavanaugh has protected Bostick, calling safe pass plays on those rare occasions when he has allowed him to throw. The glaring exception to that generally sound early strategy was in the second overtime against Navy Oct. 10 when Pitt put the ball in Bostick's hands on third and fourth downs at the Navy 2 instead of giving it to McCoy. Bostick threw two incompletions and the Panthers lost a game they had no business losing, 48-45.
The babying of Bostick resumed in full force yesterday even though it was his fourth start. After three quarters, when Pitt trailed, 17-7, he had thrown just 10 times, completing four for an absurd 18 yards. Excluding Pitt's touchdown on a 27-yard gimmick pass from tight end Darrell Strong to McCoy in the second quarter, the Panthers gained 53 yards on their other 32 plays. That works out to 1.66 yards per pop.
Things got ridiculous late in the third quarter when, after Bostick threw a 12-yard pass to wideout T.J. Porter to the Pitt 26, the Panthers ran three consecutive plays from their Wildcat formation. McCoy took the snap in the shotgun and ran each time for a total of 6 yards. Cavanaugh clearly felt more comfortable with McCoy in that situation -- against a defense that knew McCoy was going to run -- than he did with Bostick. Using the Wildcat at Michigan State Sept. 15, when Bostick wasn't ready, made sense, but yesterday? Haven't Bostick and his offense progressed beyond that point?
Wannstedt said the thinking all day was to run the ball and keep Louisville's terrific offense off the field, but there was more to the strategy than that. "We felt if we turned it over, we'd have no chance," the coach said.
Is that playing not to lose rather than to win or what?
Pitt easily could have been blown out if Louisville hadn't self-destructed with eight penalties in the first half, a rare interception from quarterback Brian Brohm at the Louisville 27 in the second quarter and a blocked field goal in the third.
It's time Wannstedt and Cavanaugh start showing Bostick a little more respect than that.
Bostick earned it in the fourth quarter.
Good things happened when Cavanaugh gave Bostick and his receivers a chance to make plays down the field. Wide receiver Maurice Williams had a 35-yard catch to set up a field goal. On Pitt's next drive, which ended in a McCoy 7-yard run for a touchdown and a 17-17 tie, Bostick converted third downs by throwing 10 yards to Porter and 15 yards to Williams. He and McCoy then hooked up for a 30-yard gain down the left sideline. Bostick was 4 of 7 on the drive for 64 yards. Maybe those aren't Dan Marino numbers yet, but the kid was impressive nonetheless.
Wannstedt, like Bostick, had a hard time getting past that final Pitt play. "Thirty-five years of coaching, I don't know that a loss ever hurt like this," he said, quietly. But after he and Cavanaugh watch the game tape, they'll realize how well Bostick played down the stretch. Hopefully, they'll start treating him more like a starting quarterback than just a freshman quarterback.
Really, what is there to lose at this point of a season that's going to end without a winning record or a bowl trip?
There is much to like about this Pitt team despite its dismal 3-5 record. Defensive linemen Greg Romeus, Tommie Duhart, John Malecki and Ernest Williams and cornerback Aaron Berry -- he had the interception -- made big plays against a Louisville offense that had been averaging 38.6 points and 529.8 yards per game. Bostick, McCoy, Porter and Williams had big moments on offense. All are freshmen or sophomores. All should continue to get better and will have a chance to become big-time players.
It's time for Wannstedt and Cavanaugh to give him the chance.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .